Campus Closeup: Charles Leith
Charles Leith (Psychology) has been a faculty member at Northern for nearly 37 years. His teaching load includes the introduction to psychology course, which he estimates one-third to one-half of students take at some point during their time at NMU.
“One of the amusing consequences of teaching a class that so many take is that I can’t go anywhere in this town or the end of this state, or even some parts of northern Wisconsin, without running into a former student. So I must be on good behavior all the time,” he said.
The most difficult part of repeatedly teaching the same introductory course, Leith added, is trying to stay fresh. He keeps reading and takes advantage of opportunities to integrate new material into the classroom.
“It’s very fortunate that I married Sheila Burns, who was a fellow graduate student of psychology and now head of the department at NMU,” Leith said. “The fact we live together and go to work together at similar occupations makes for an interesting lifestyle. There’s no going to the office and coming back from some strange world.”
Leith said his family members were mill hands who followed lumber companies to remain close to available work. He decided to veer from the family profession and study psychology. After nearly four decades, it’s safe to say he has settled into his career. But early on, there was some uncertainty as to what direction he wanted to take his academic interest. He initially wanted to be a high school teacher because it was the only job he thought he could pursue with his degree.
“One professor asked me if I had applied for grad school. I said, ‘no,’ and he said, ‘Well, you had better or I’ll kick your behind.’ So I applied and got in.”
The first offer he received after grad school was at Northern. He visited campus during the summer and fell in love with the weather. As someone who grew up near the coast in California and Oregon, he also found it appealing to have a big body of water nearby.
He said his favorite part of his position is interacting with students.
”My wife and I sometimes kid each other that we’re like vampires, drawing energy from the kids coming through. I think there’s more than an element of truth to that.”
Leith and Burns have two grown children: a son, who works in theater; and a daughter, who earned a doctorate in applied statistics.
“They’re a constant delight; my favorite people. I love when they visit,” he said. “And when they moved out of the house, we got some poodle puppies and treat them exactly like children.”
When not working together, the couple enjoys spending free time sailing on Lake Superior. But Leith admits it hasn’t always been a case of smooth sailing, as evidenced by one outing early in the learning curve.
“The first time we went out, we waited until the wind was blowing hard enough. We cheerfully loaded up a bunch of students who had never gone sailing before and got blown around by a 20 mile-per-hour wind. When we came in, we found out a small craft warning had been issued. It’s a good thing the boat didn’t kill us. You learn from things like that.”
Even those who teach can be schooled—at least in water safety.